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Kansas and Maine are Innovating to End Poverty Through ‘Welfare Reform 3.0’

“The objective should never be about saving money in welfare reform. The object should be about getting people out of poverty.”

That was the underlying message from Wednesday in Washington, D.C. at the American Enterprise Institute forum about how two states have been implementing changes to the social welfare programs such as food stamps.

When people hear the phrase “welfare reform,” images of single mothers with multiple kids from marginalized communities often come to mind. However, the latest iteration experts are calling “welfare reform 3.0” has a different face than 30 years ago: single people with no children who are able to work, but don’t.

Enforcing federal requirements on so-called “able-bodied adults without dependent children (ABAWDs)” by state governments are moving people back into the workforce and subsequently lowering the number of people in poverty, putting more money in their pockets, and even increasing tax revenue from these new workers. But it’s not a perfect solution. Many states took the federal government’s offer to waive these requirements because the recession caused their local economies to shed jobs.

Two states pushing tough love

Yet Maine and Kansas led the charge in this new wave of welfare reform and have positive results to show.

Gov. Sam Brownback (pictured above) talked about the motivation behind his policy changes in Kansas. Speaking to the audience in D.C. he explained that most Americans don’t think social safety programs have worked in getting people out of poverty. The problem of poverty is complex, but the solutions are simple: work, education, and family structure. However government programs have broken down the family and perpetuated generational poverty, he said.

His reforms required able-bodied Americans to demonstrate they either work, are looking for work, or are participating in education or training to qualify for continued aid. He also instituted new reading programs in schools, technical training programs for high school students and mentorship programs for the formerly incarcerated to help them better prepare for life outside of prison.

Kansas then did something ground-breaking: it tracked 41,000 people to see what happened when ABAWDs were given tough love. They tracked many factors beyond whether they got a job such as the types of jobs and the industries that people found work. Josh Archambault with the Foundation for Government Accountability simply boiled the results down into a nice tweet: “One, two, three. With one policy change, they saw a doubling in average incomes and tripling in rate of work.”

Maine had similar results, adding that wages increased 114 percent for those who were receiving food stamps. The number of states that are no longer exempting ABAWDs from work requirements has dropped from 39 in 2013 to seven in 2016 although the number of partial waivers has gone from six to 26.

What happens when food stamps are gone

For critics who claimed that getting able-bodied Americans back to work would drive people to soup lines and food pantries, another panelist explained that work requirements don’t drive people to hunger. “The USDA reports that food stamps ha[s] no impact on hunger,” said Jason Turner of the Secretaries’ Innovation Group. On a slide that tracks very low food security in the last 30 days (as a proxy for hunger) and the rise in SNAP households, he showed that hunger has hovered under five million people for over twenty years while the number of households on SNAP has increased into the millions.

We are left to believe then that it’s possible to reduce the number of people on food stamps and have both a positive and negative results. Positively, fewer people would be on this federal assistance program who likely do not need the help. Negatively –and disturbingly, we may still not address the few million people with chronic, low food security.

A cautionary note

While the findings from Kansas and Maine show a glimmer of hope to get people to work and improving their lives through independence, AEI scholar on poverty Angela Rachidi reminds us that the numbers may not explain other contributing factors and may miss important information about how the ABAWDs are getting their food needs met. Setting up control groups to track those in similar positions who are allowed to stay in food assistance to see what would happen can authenticate whether this tough love approach works or if there is something else going on.

Absent the conversation were the cultural and social issues that affect people in poverty, such as the impact of family and family breakdown, as well as changing mindsets on generational poverty and dependence. Those will have to wait for the next conversation.

Watch the full forum here:

Photo by Kansas City District

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